The Gemara tells us a curious story about blessings and curses, or perhaps how we should understand the words of others. Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai sends his son to Rabbi Yonatan ben Asmai and Rabbi Yehudah for a blessing. They say the following:
May it be God’s will that you should sow and not reap, that you should bring in and not take out, that you should take out and not bring in, that your house should be destroyed and your lodging place should be inhabited, that your table should become confused, and that you should not see a new year.
Not much of a blessing, right? The son leaves confused and hurt. He returns to his father, who explains that they spoke cryptically. Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai explains each individual “curse” as a blessing:
When they said that you should sow and not reap they meant that you should bear sons and they should not die.
Their statement that you should bring in and not take out means that you should bring in brides for your sons and your sons should not die, which would cause their wives to leave.
When they said you should take out and not bring in they meant that you should have daughters and their husbands should not die, which would cause your daughters to return to you.
When they said that your house should be destroyed and your lodging place should be inhabited, this should be interpreted allegorically: As this world is compared to your lodging place, and the World-to-Come is compared to your house, as it is written: “Their inward thought [kirbam], is that their houses shall continue forever” (Psalms 49:12), and the Sages said: Do not read it as “their inward thought [kirbam]”; rather read it as their graves [kivram].
When they said that your table should become confused, they meant that you should be blessed with many sons and daughters, so that there will be noise and confusion at your table.
When they said that you should not see a new year, they meant your wife should not die and as a result you should not have to marry another woman, about which it says: “When a man has taken a new wife, he shall not go out to war, neither shall he be charged with any business; he shall be free at home for one year” (Deuteronomy 24:5).
Some of these seem to be a bit of a stretch; the blessing is buried a couple of layers under the apparent curse. What we may not be able to determine from the text is whether R. Shimon is actually trying to protect his son against their intended curses, or is he rather interpreting their words correctly as blessings? If we assume the latter, giving them the benefit of the doubt, we must ask why they phrased the blessings as curses?
Multiple commentators suggest that their reason for giving apparent curses is that they give to R. Shim’on a second opportunity for blessing, thus doubling the blessing. Another possibility is that they were creating a teachable moment for the the father: we always have to assume the best in people. Even when others seem to put us down, the true intent may be help rather than harm.
I must say I am drawn to the idea of re-interpreting curses as blessings. How often are we wounded by the words of others? If we only had R. Shim’on’s skill in turning meanings around, the world might be a better place.